The Power of Reflection

This week I was awed by a shared storytelling experience hosted by the Salvation Army in Chattanooga. In A Walk in My Shoes, the stories of local people, many of them homeless, are shared and retold by actors and storytellers. This summary doesn’t really do justice to what the program accomplishes. Here is a link to a short video about the project:

If you see it, you should know that the man featured in the video is no longer homeless and he attributes this project, in part, for how far he’s come.

As an art educator, what struck me as I listened to Ms. Dye describe the work was that this is an exercise in learning and growing by externalizing our experiences and reflecting on them critically in a shared safe space. I don’t say safe in the sense of easy, but in the sense that we can look on our own experiences and choices externally with others who look with us at the experiences rather than at us.

I kept having flashbacks of very uncomfortable critiques of my artwork in my early years of college. I had to listen to all that was wrong with a given piece that I had not done so well and then share in the criticism.

I hear people say that we need to learn from our failures and provide situations where it is ok for learners to fail. I agree. But I agree in the sense that we need to provide opportunities for learners to REFLECT on their failures, their successes, and even those experiences beyond their control. I feel strongly that no work of art is complete until the maker has viewed it and reflected on it. Without response, the creative process is incomplete. And for students, that process needs to be facilitated.

The most profound things we can do sometimes are to talk with each other about our challenges, the snags and failures and difficulties we have overcome or been overcome by. I cannot think of any place in school or elsewhere that provides those conversations better than learning in the arts.

Why educate?

Student Art ExhibitI am occasionally asked what I think about this educational issue or that, and I can very easily rant upon my soapbox about any and all of them. But what strikes me about many of the arguments we have about how best to educate or who should do the educating come down to very different ideas about the primary purpose of education.

Lately, it seems, the whole job of schools is to produce people who can make money and grow the economy.

In the past, it was about instilling our children with a common cultural identity (sometimes by destroying the ones they already had).

Some among us have even argued that for a democratic society to function well requires a well-informed citizenry.

There are strengths to all of these, depending on how they are implemented. The problem we face is that in this country we tend to latch onto one idea and spout about it as the only thing that matters. Lately educational policy has been pushed toward functional literacy and numeracy with the idea that schools are factories for producing workers for American businesses. I don’t entirely disagree with the premise that preparation for the workforce is one function of education, but if it is the only thing we consider, then there is no room for anything that does not directly show an economic benefit. Is the quality of a human being merely the amount of money they can earn? Is, then, the highest of human achievements membership on a Fortune list of the wealthiest muckity mucks?

Before we can really have a conversation about how we educate, we need to have a clearer agreement about WHY. Our why determines what we teach (and don’t), how we teach it, and what gets the most time and energy in a world where time and energy are finite resources.

So the next time you read an article about teacher quality or standardized tests or changing standards ask yourself, “Why are we doing this?” and “Is this getting us what we need from education?”

Peace,
JB